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Privatising public space

One of the issues that the Occupy movement has brought into sharp focus is that of city land and its ownership. On Wall Street, Zuccotti Park is owned privately but heavily constrained by covenants. Occupy LSX ended up camped on ground partly by St Paul’s Cathedral and partly by the City of London Corporation because Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is located, is private land. In practice, urban land is increasingly owned or managed by private interests, even when it appears to be public space. This is a new enclosure movement.

So it seems appropriate that Occupy LSX has made so visible the private nature of Paternoster Square (as seen in the picture above) and that one of the ‘teach-outs’ it has organised through its Tent City University was about the private control of public space. By privatised public space, I mean that space which appears to be a public space (a square or a lane, for example) is in fact owned and controlled by a private landowner (or sometimes managed privately for a public owner.) Either way, different rules apply. It’s a trend which has been driven along by private sector regeneration schemes, and reinforced by a plethora of increasingly contentious public order legislation. But it is all but invisible.

From public interest to economic interest

Broadly speaking, in the UK, the current wave of land privatisation started in the 1980s, with the development of Canary Wharf and the City’s Broadgate building, and has grown from there. According to Anna Minton, a speaker at the Occupy LSX event, and the author of Ground Control, the best single book on this subject, New Labour gave the process a boost in 2004 when it changed the legal basis by which Compulsory Purchase Orders were assessed. Previously they had to show they were in the “public interest”; now they need only to demonstrate “economic interest”. (New Labour was never very good at consequences, but one consequence was to create a platform for the Coalition to propose trashing the entire planning system in the same way).

What started with office spaces quickly moved on to city centre retail developments such as Cabot Circus in Bristol and Liverpool One, where the developer has a 250-year lease on the 42-acre site. Local authorities were keen because, at a time when regeneration was thought to be about new buildings, it seemed to be an affordable way of re-shaping the city. You don’t get something for nothing, of course, and in many places local authorities were far too willing to give away public space in their dealings with developers.

And then there are the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), which are managed by a company on behalf of the local authority, and funded by local business subscriptions.

Rules and security guards

One of the things that comes with private management is, almost always, a lot of rules and a set of security guards to police them: no music. no busking, no picnics, no drinking (at least of alcohol), no photography, no street theatre, no ball games, no skateboarding, no roller-blading, no cycling. And certainly no protests. (And as an aside, the fact that London’s seat of government, City Hall, sits on such land seems, to say the least, an affront to civic democracy). Surveillance is widespread, usually via CCTV. “The streets”, said Minton, have been privatised without anyone noticing.”

And indeed, you can tell when you’re on a privately controlled site because of the notices. I’ve included a couple of pictures of these, from Hays Galleria on the south side of the Thames near London Bridge.

Obviously shopping malls and retail areas have long followed this pattern, because they were typically closed off spaces under a roof. Here there is a similar blurring; there’s a telltale sign on the Thames’ riverside walk, as it passes by London’s Hays Galleria, that it is a ‘no-smoking area’ – a sign that the land is under private control even though it appears to be public space.
Guardian journalist John Harris made this point about Bristol’s Cabot Circus – which is partly covered, partly open:

Cabot Circus bleeds out into the city, and surrounding streets they are busy redeveloping. The fact that their turf includes open areas points up one of the more unsettling aspects of the development: what seem to be ordinary streets are actually privately owned. “It’s an interesting one, this,” says [Centre director Richard] Belt. “These places are quite a new breed. We’ve applied all the usual rules that shopping centres do, but because it’s a streetscape, it’s getting customers scratching their heads a bit.” Cycling is forbidden. Unless you have a visual impairment, should you turn up with a dog, you’ll be told to leave it at home next time. Security staff in regulation black blazers keep a constant watch on what’s going on, including smoking.

This British model was – according to Ground Control - imported almost wholesale from the United States, but with an important difference. In the US, the changes to property and planning laws became a focus for widespread protest, with extensive media coverage, and eventually George W. Bush had to intervene. In Britain, there was almost no political response, but this was partly because of our opaque legislative processes and the technicalities of our planning processes. As Anna Minton writes, “While the legislation may not look very significant when it passes through parliament, by the time it becomes law, the addition of utterly obscure guidance and statutory instruments … ensures it is rather different.”

The second part of this post will appear in a few days.

The photographs in this post were taken by Andrew Curry and are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

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